Ashes of Time Redux
2008, R, 93 min. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Brigitte Lin, Charlie Yeung.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 7, 2008
Dreamlike, disjointed, and possessed of a stunningly complex sensual and narrative poetry that may confound audiences not familiar with Chinese director Wong's defining stylistic tropes, Ashes of Time Redux is, simply, one of the most gorgeous films ever made. Never given much of a serious stateside release when it first arrived here in 1996, Ashes, ostensibly a period wuxia (literally, "honorable martial arts") movie replete with flashing swordplay, heartbroken assassins, and an eerie desert locale, remains the director's only period action film to date. But Ashes of Time (Redux or the 1994 original) is no more your average wuxia than Godard's Breathless is your average gangster flick. Ashes bears the unmistakable stamp of its creator and his longtime collaborative cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, just as surely as Godard's debut bears his own idiosyncratic style. Both films are groundbreaking, genre-defying masterpieces worthy of their reputations, and both are exhilarating, pulse-quickening examples of the auteur theory in action, but only Ashes of Time Redux has cello solos by Yo-Yo Ma and fight sequences choreographed by Sammo Hung. Recut, remastered, and digitally scrubbed, this is one director's cut you've got to see on the big screen to fully appreciate; you don't watch this film so much as you allow it to engulf you. The story is chiefly set in and around a blighted desert flophouse overseen by love-gutted ex-warrior Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung). Feng makes his living, if you can call it that, by acting as the middleman between those needing an assassin and the assassins themselves. He's a facilitator of dirty deeds done dirt cheap, but, oh, what dirt! (Ashes' supersaturated and sandblasted look derives as much from Alejandro Jodorowsky as it does from Sergio Leone.) As the seasons change, various characters wander into and out of Feng's rickety haven, including a near-blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and the assassin Hung Qi (Jacky Cheung), all of whom share a magical memory-erasing wine and frequent tales of thwarted desire and emotional betrayal. There's also Brigitte Lin, in drag; Charlie Yeung, with a burro and a basket of eggs; and the great Maggie Cheung as Feng's long-gone love. Ashes' lovesick nihilism is classic Wong; everyone is miserable and all love is doomed to misinterpretation, mismanagement, or the ravages of time. But the director, working along with his trusted cinematographer and what must surely be the greatest assemblage of Hong Kong cinematic talent ever combined in a single film, makes the misery magnificent. I'd rather have Wong Kar-Wai's ashes in my mouth and mind than his drowsy blueberry nightmares any time.